The Opera House – People and a Penny
Hand me something from one hundred or two hundred years ago, and my heart flutters like you gave me a diamond. History is the route to my imagination, a path to a creative spark of energy that explodes – as if I lived during a time I can only dream about.
I was given a scrapbook filled with material from the eighteen hundreds, but more so, with names I recognized from a city where I grew up. Names of people who were known as the founders of the city, the do-gooders; respectfully, those with the cash who donated their money to fund projects and so, the city grew.
Thumbing through the scrapbook I noticed an engraving: a newly built Van Curler Hotel and the Van Curler Opera House. The opening night scheduled for March 1, 1893. Here in front of me was the ticket and next to it the entire program. On the back cover were the names of those people who made the night possible – and, made most things possible in the city.
Van Curler Opera House would be known throughout its’ existence and beyond as the biggest and brightest beyond those in New York City. The opening event had been written about in all the newspapers; expecting carriages to pull up to the entrance while the streets would be lined with ordinary people watching well-dressed people stepping, gently, from their carriage beneath the arch at the entrance of the new theater. The arrival took over an hour and the night air was frigid.
The people on the street were silent, all but a few whispers among the women as they commented on the gowns worn by Mrs. DeForest, Mrs. VanVranken, Mrs. Clute, Mrs. Palmer and a few words were spoken when the famous inventor, Mr. Edison arrived along with his on again off again Mr. Ford – joined by the famous scientist whom also lived in the city, Mr. Steinmetz. It’s no wonder the Opera House had been built with such care and of great standards; the beauty surpassing many of the great Opera Houses of its’ day.
The newspaper printed a story – telling its’ citizens that the President of the Schenectady Locomotive Company was first to buy a box ticket for the opening event, Mr. Edward Ellis. It would be Mr. Richard Fuller who sat near him and John Smitley a financier, and a banker in the following boxes. Those who followed, were the VanVrankens, Browns of the Edison Hotel, and the Clutes and Delta Phi Fraternity.
I thumbed through the scrapbook; a spectacular engraving of a coat of arms – it had to be from the Delta Phi Fraternity – all of these things were from Union University; a scrapbook previously owned by the Clute Family. Anything possible to do with the city was inside this book – from fire house openings, stately balls, the first Dutch Church, Ice Cream Socials, the first graduation from Union College – Prize Speaking Awards, Victorian Cards, vacations to Colorado, and tickets to other city functions.
Those people who attended the Opera were highly involved with the College – especially when it was located in the Stockade area of the city; now as I glanced at more invitations I noticed more buildings belonging to the college were relocating to the hill, out of the stockade. (The stockade; an area near the Mohawk River once only known for the Mohawk Indians, then, the early settlers who fought the War, built a Stockade, followed by the well to do of the city, and when they moved above Union College to what is known as the GE Plot Area the immigrants moved to the Stockade area.) moving some of the buildings up on College Hill. The city would grow rapidly, not only with entertainment and a college focusing on literature and music – ( now known for engineering and medical, but for the better part – an engineering academy – how things change; so did the city.)
The Schenectady Gazette printed an illustration of the Opera House the day it opened. This beautiful building was made of brick and stone and four stories high. People marveled over the triple sets of cherry doors which opened to the theatre and if you were lucky enough to get inside and close enough to the stage you couldn’t help but touch the drapes of heavy silk.
If I lived in those days, I believe the wide staircase leading to the second level balcony would have caught my attention – a lover of twisting and turning staircases.
Records tell you that inside you would find fine finishing’s of ivory and gold. High above one’s head are the muses – the goddess of music, tragedy, dancing and comedy. The citizens were told the stage at the theater was one of the largest in the country – along with seventeen dressing rooms.
The city followed all the ordinances regarding fire walls – and also fire proofed asbestos curtains and pipe. Fires in large hotels and buildings were a common happening in all cities – but they were protecting a gem here.
The cost of this magnificent theatre, way back when, came to about – as reported – $100,000 – give or say a little.
Soon big stars began to open at the Opera House; Lillian Russell, Robert Mansfield, Eddie Foy and Mae Desmond.
This town – all of the famous people from scientists, inventors, actors, automobile tycoons, railroad tycoons, etc. continued to flourish – but the Opera House began to decline when the Motion Picture Industry came into play.
It was a Thursday night, a cold night in March – as it was when they celebrated the grand opening, the year, 1924 – my grandmother would have lived in the stockade at this time and all those well to do people would have moved above the college – up on the hill and occupied a GE Plot Home. The immigrants had now lived among themselves in the stockade and separated by blocks, from where you came from in the old country.
The fancy carriages were no longer seen on narrow streets – but, horse and wagons were still carrying goods along the cobblestone streets of the city – and the peddlers were yelling out early in the morning – selling their wares. The immigrants would not be like the early settlers; clutter the streets on this cold night to watch who would show up for the last show at the Opera House.
The investors knew in 1910 – things were changing – and those from the hill gathered at the Opera House that fateful evening for the last show and waited until the stage was clear – holding their glass above their head, toasting – while the proprietor pulled down a huge screen from the top and center of the large stage – lowering it to stage level – he walked into a little room at the back of the theatre and the room went dark – flicker of lights began to show up as round circles, and the words appeared on the screen, “Ben Hur.”
Once again, I thumbed through the scrapbook I held on my lap – it certainly did not enter the twenties – it was a Victorian scrapbook – there was nothing about movies, or cameras, or even wagons or cars for that matter.
I closed the old, worn but cherished book – held by many for decades, saved trinkets by many hearts. Then – I heard two coins roll onto the floor.
Inside the scrapbook were envelopes, page after page, filled with wedding invitations – some mentioned Pound, Straus, Faulkner, and others – from California to the far reaches of the world. Most were the sons and daughters of those who attended Union University – each invitation kept pristine, and one placed two good luck pennies inside. Two perfect Indian Head pennies dated 1885 and 1890. I smiled, I knew whoever put those in the envelope never thought it would be me who would be writing about them one day – things do end up in the right hands for some reason – all that tender loving care throughout their lifetime, and yes it was worth it. Someone else could have tossed it right into the trash, now, their life lives on.
Old pictures, tickets, newspaper clippings, letters: what a goldmine they are. And then when we write about them, share them in our own fiction and nonfiction, we’re helping keep the names and places and memories alive.
This is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I myself love anything that can take me back to a place in time when the simple things in life were a plenty!